Games for the stupid

This post is the first of three written following the Oxford Analytica conference last year where I spoke on “Why the under 30s will change the World”.

If it seems like game mechanics are everywhere then there is good reason for this – it appears that the way that we are thinking is fundamentally shifting.

Nicholas Carr first suggested this back in the summer of 2008 when he wrote the provocatively titled: “Is Google making us stupid?” article for Atlantic magazine. Last year he followed this up with a book filling out his thoughts on the subject called The Shallows.

Carr is convinced that modern media, and the internet in particular, is changing the way our minds process information. Not as in we’ve got a whole new perspective on the World, isn’t it wonderful? No. Actually, physically changing the neurological connections in our brains. Don’t believe it? Check out the research by Dr Gary Small at UCLA.

Whenever you are connected to the web, your brain is drawn in lots of different directions all at once. From the never ending call of Facebook to minute-by-minute news blogs complete with the ubiquitous hyperlinks that spin you away into constellations of factoids you never knew existed, there are simply too many sources of information for your brain to settle. Like an over excited child you skip from one to another, leaving a stream of half composed emails cluttering your outbox and your to do list barely grazed. That said, you’ve probably managed to book holiday flights, half organise Friday night out and a research a recipe for lemon drizzle cake (not immediately necessary, but may come in handy later).

I’m a generally an optimist and not a fan of techno-scaredy-cats and doomsayers, but what caught my attention in Carr’s work was the fact that it resonated with my own behaviour. It’s hard to pin point, but as my computer use went up at university and then at work, my powers of concentration definitely started to decline, and it’s been downhill ever since. Concentrating on one topic for more than a few minutes requires an active effort to prevent myself being distracted by something else, and I have procrastination down to an art. I don’t think it’s just me, and I don’t think it’s just the internet either. Assemble a random group of people together and half of them will be engrossed in Blackberry Messager or checking their latest app on the iPhone.

And it’s going to keep getting worse. Check out the various OfCom communications reports and you’ll see there is no end in sight to the steady rise in media consumption. Even the sheer number of hours in the day is not an absolute barrier, as people increasingly consume multiple media at once, surfing the internet whilst watching TV, and texting with everything.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to succumb to Carr’s pessimism just yet. I don’t think that flitting from factoid to sound bite is all bad. It’s a little annoying to see time evaporate when you’ve got something in particular to do (like write a blog post), but this is replaced with new ideas (like titles for three more blog posts) and connections. Our brains may well be changing, but change isn’t synonymous with decay.

In a World where we are inundated with communication and information 24/7 and through multiple channels, it is no surprise that our brains have learned how to flit from one thing to another, paying minimal lip service to things that we can’t immediately see are interesting or directly relevant to our circumstances. If progressing down a single line of thought has become more difficult, it is because our brains have changed to filter a broader range of data at a shallower level.

Yes, yes, but what does it all mean?

Traditional advertising is losing its punch. Even now if you are buying eyeballs online, then depending on how targeted your audience is, a click through rate (CTR) of 0.5% is likely to be quite good. But that means that for every 1,000 people that have a look at your page, 5 might click on your ad. To put that in perspective, 5 people in 1,000 is roughly equivalent to one week in 3 years. Look at a heat map showing where users look on a webpage and you’ll see some big dark areas round the adverts. Consumers automatically filter these bits of the page out, because they know they are often not relevant. Contrast that with the Tipex video viral (link below) which had over 20m views or the Barclaycard iPhone game that more than 10m people downloaded.

Engagement is everything. Getting people to stop and focus on your message is the key, and once again game mechanics come into play. How do you make people to pay attention? Get someone they know to recommend it to them. How do you get them to really engage with what you are saying? Allow them to participate. How to you increase time devoted to your message? Allow people to participate repeatedly.

There is obviously a lot of buzz around these concepts, which I’ve explained in greater detail in other posts and will no doubt return to again. The point here is just to outline why game mechanics are increasingly important and set to become more prevalent. I’ll leave you with a crude hierarchy of adverts that illustrate how adding in different game mechanics vastly changes the amount of time and attention you expend on them. (You promise you’ll come back and comment, right?!)

  • Traditional media: try and remember any specific advert from the last paper you read…
  • Social media: If you’ve heard about Secret Cinema, chances are you heard about it first from a friend. They’re extremely savvy social marketers
  • Interactive advertising: have you seen this Tipex ad? It’s good.
  • Advertising games: Barclaycard’s watertube game is a pretty poor game, but it had over 10m downloads in just 6 months
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